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Interview by Wyclef Jean
Photo by James Elliot Bailey
For me, I got up on Jim James because I’m one of those artists who’s always in search of other artists who are bigger than just the music, who actually have a voice and lend their voice to the world. I think that we share the same undertone when it comes to the idea of looking at the world how we look at the world. For example, when he got involved and did the song for the election about where the stance of what was going on in the world with Trump, that’s just a prime example. For me, an artist who always puts the truth before the art … I definitely always respect that. In a sense, I’m a big Pink Floyd fan, and I love artists who when they’re producing music, it almost sounds like an audio movie. That’s some of the discoveries I’ve been finding out about Jim. I love a lot of that audio-film vibe. I’m a fan. —Wyclef Jean
Wyclef Jean: Sometimes I go through like 27 album names before I decide—making my labels so crazy—because they’ll be like, “What’s the name of the album?” I’ll be like, “This is the album name.” And then, a week later I’ll get an epiphany and be like, “This is the name.” So did you have a few names for this album, or this was just it—you just focused on Eternally Even?
Jim James: I did have a few names. It was funny. At first I wanted to call it Future Generations for many reasons, but then—it’s hilarious—the day before I was going to call it that officially, there’s a band called Future Generations that came out with an album called Future Generations. And then I was going to call it Silent Majority, but that felt weird as well—because I wanted it to have some kind of political feeling, because I was trying to talk about a lot of what’s going on today in the world. But it just seemed like the universe just didn’t want that to be so blatantly put out there. So I felt like “Eternally Even”—as a song it talks about a lot of things. But I have this thing: You know when you go out to have dinner with a friend or a family member or somebody you love, and one of you pays for dinner and the other person is like, “Oh, I owe you one.” I always feel like—I have friends and loved ones who don’t owe each other anything; you know, you’re kind of eternally even. I just feel like, in a larger sense, I wish humans could treat each other that way. I wish we could take pride in taking care of each other instead of taking so much pride in making money and trying to be successful and all this stuff. We could shift our focus on trying to take care of each other, trying to provide people with health insurance, trying to just be better people to each other.
Jean: It’s so funny, I’m telling you, we share the same goal. I just put out this 2016 version of “If I Was President.” The first time I did that it was on the Dave Chappelle show. So after we get off the phone, definitely check out Wyclef Jean 2016. I take everything like what you’re talking about—you’re gonna really enjoy it. I can share the same mindset. So my next question is a geeked-out question: Personally, my best work, honestly, always comes out when I build a tiny-ass fuckin’ studio, and I go in, and it’s not big—like when I did the Fugees; it was in my basement. Right now, I just built this small 5.1 room in the middle of a storefront. I’m weird like that. So my question for you was—as far as the recording process, I know we both have home studios—is it easier when you’re just in small studios or when you lay out in the bigger studios?
James: I’m into it all, but most of my life I’ve done renegade home recording. I moved out to L.A. in December, and I rented this crazy place out in the middle of nowhere with two tortoises living there and a big old storage container, and I just brought a few things—my laptop, a couple mic trees, a couple mics. It kind of felt like I was in a spaceship on Mars out in the middle of nowhere.
Jean: What part of L.A. is that?
James: Montecito Heights.
Jean: Oh, I know where that’s at. I’m telling you, man, I always find the renegades are best for me—out of nowhere.
James: Definitely. It’s weird, I feel like in big studios sometimes you can get great sounds, like great drum sounds or whatever, but I feel like you’re always playing with other people’s vibes that have already been there. Like, if you’re cutting in the studio where Prince cut Purple Rain or whatever—I almost don’t want to do that. You know, Prince cut Purple Rain—I don’t even want to try and compete with those vibes.
Jean: I so understand that. So I definitely checked the first single, and just the title of it, “Here In Spirit”—when I was going through all your stuff, I noticed there’s this constant thread. In John Lennon’s music, there’s this constant thread of consciousness. And it’s not a forced consciousness, it’s just a natural consciousness. So I wanted to talk about the release of this new single. What’s the vibe with it? How did it come to be?
James: I wrote it, like, the day after that Orlando shooting at the Pulse nightclub. And all the shootings going on, the police shootings and the ISIS killings and all this violence—not that there hasn’t always been violence on Earth with humans, but it just seems like lately shit has been so fucked up, and there’s so much hatred and bigotry and so much terrible stuff being broadcast. It’s really important that we speak out for peace and love, and we speak out for equality and we try to give that as much of our time as all the hatred and bullshit. You know, we need to speak loud for what’s right, to try to bring peace and love to the world. So that’s pretty much in a nutshell what that song’s about.
Jean: And peace and love is possible, right, through music.
James: Absolutely. Sometimes it seems like it’s not possible. Sometimes it seems like the world is so fucked up. I think there’s always a possibility for redemption and love.
Jean: You know I respect a lot of what you do. I got a chance to spend a lot of time with Bono—he’s one of my mentors—and he always says, “Listen, there’s a thin line between being a rock star and speaking up,” you know? And I’m like, “You motherfuckers did, like, ‘Bloody Sunday’ when it was necessary.” I always respect the people that say, “Come on, man, let’s use the art first for everything else.” And I think there are too many artists that are like—you know, I ran for president for my country, I’ve done stuff that was not popular, and they came after me. They expect us to be in a certain shell. So I always yield to musicians that understand their art. And speaking about this, this record “Same Old Lie,” where you don’t hold back on Donald Trump, presidential elections. Talk to me a little about that, because we got the last debate coming up in the next couple of hours.
James: Just the notion that a man like Donald Trump could even be entertained as the possibility for president just makes me want to cry. It’s so sad. You know, anybody who knows anything has known that since the beginning, how terrible his presidency would be, and when that tape came out with him talking so terribly—everybody was so shocked and surprised by that. But it’s hilarious because we’ve all already known that. I don’t know if you saw Michelle Obama’s speech the other night.
Jean: Yeah, definitely.
James: Oh, my god, it was so beautiful and so eloquent, and it just perfectly sums up that it’s just not about politics anymore. It’s just about human decency and people treating each other right. It’s not about any politics at all. And “Same Old Lie” is just kind of talking about how sick I am and how sick most people are of all the bullshit and all the lies—and can’t we just get back into a place where love comes first? Why is that so hard? Why is that so difficult?
Jean: Yeah, I dig that, and I think a lot of people definitely share your ideology, and then you got a group of people that’s still trying to find their way—I definitely respect that a hundred percent. I think the hardest thing for us to do as writers and producers is to find someone who can be like our sidekick at times. You know what I mean? Like a Batman and Robin. And we rarely have that in life. Me, I’ve probably found that, like, twice. It’s so hard to find a wingman—somebody to ride with you. So I wanted to talk with you about Blake Mills—he helped co-produce. So what’s the movement in the studio? When I have a co-producer, we move a certain way. So what’s it like with you? Let me know what’s up with Blake.
James: Blake’s great. I’m sure you know from working with people, it’s always different, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Blake was an experiment because I had never worked with him before, and this whole record was strange because I had already made the record before I had started working with Blake. But I felt like it could be better, and I felt like somebody could help me. When you’re working on something—especially if you’re working on something in your house and you’re the only one working on it—you kind of can lose perspective because you’re kind of buried in it. I need somebody to come in with fresh ears and help me bring it out. And I met Blake and really liked his vibe, and I went and played him what I’d recorded already, and he was into it and had some great ideas. So I just took a chance—it could have not worked out. But I was just feeling fresh. There’s been a lot of change in my life lately—I’ve moved, a lot of stuff’s been changing. So I’ve got friends and producers I’ve worked with in the past who I really love, but I felt like I wanted to try something completely different.
Jean: That’s a good thing, man. I’m telling you, it’s great to sometimes step out. I think for people like us, we’re always searching. “What’s the next, what’s the next?” You know, “What’s our energy?” I remember with my first solo album, The Carnival, I was just like, “Fuck it. I’m gonna do something weird,” whatever was in my brain. And then it was funny: When I tried to depart from my first solo album and tried to prompt the second record, it definitely worked, but it was a little weird—because people are expecting something. It was constantly evolving and changing. So I was wondering: What did that departure feel like—leaving the solo joint, prompting for the second one? And of course, everyone would be like, “Why now?” You know they’re always asking us, “Why now? Why now? Why this second?”
James: Right. I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but for me music comes or it doesn’t, and I really don’t have much control over it—when it decides to come into my mind, you know, nobody really knows where it comes from, nobody knows why it happens. And I’ve kind of realized over the years of putting out so many records that whenever I put out a record, somebody’s always going to hate it and somebody’s always going to like it. So that’s really freeing, to know that I can really change whenever I want or do whatever I want just to find the music that I love. And you really have to almost forget that anybody’s ever going to listen to it at all. Because it’s just like every time: If you never change, somebody’s going to complain because you never change, and then if you do change, somebody complains because you did change. I feel like I just try to forget all that and make the music that’s coming into my brain and into my heart.